<< previous image || Mongolian Exhibition || next image >>

Zanabazar (1635-1723)
Late 17th-early 18th century
Gilt bronze
H:27 1/8 in. (69.9 cm) Diam:17 5/8 in. (44.8 cm)

Fine Arts Museum

While he was living in retreat, Ged,ndrup (1391-1475), the First Dalai Lama and Tsongkhapa's most eminent disciple, wrote a prayer of praise to White Tara, "A Gem to Increase Life and Wisdom." Its opening verses may well have been the inspiration for Zanabazar's image of White Tara, the goddess who, above all others, filled the hearts of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists with her compassion and with the hope of long life:

    Homage to White Tara, a Female Buddha exquisite with youth. Radiant as the eternal snows in all their glory, She sits on a white lotus and a silvery moon Indicating fully developed compassion and knowledge.

    Homage to the Youthful One with full breasts, One face and two arms. Sitting in vajra position, She regally displays both grace and calm And is filled with great bliss.(1)

Ged,ndrup came into his Gelugpa title, Dalai Lama, only posthumously, but his love for the goddess Tara was nurtured during his childhood, which he spent in a Kadampa monastery. The Kadam order ("Bound to the Proclamation") was founded by the Indian sage, Atisha (982-1054), who was "preserved by Tara, the patron deity of his former lives."(2) Tsongkhapa too was inspired by Atisha's teachings; his reformed Gelugpa was styled the "New Kadam," and his teachings recognize Tara as the mother of all Buddhas, past, present, and future; transcendent, yet capable of intercession and compassionate action.

Atisha was one of several Indian pundits who were invited to Tibet to help restore the dharma after the bitter persecutions of the apostate king Langdarma (838-42). Trained at the great monasteries of India and Indonesia, Atisha was a tantric adept and a devotee of Tara. His life was "filled with visions of the goddess,"(3) and it was she who encouraged him to make the journey to Tibet, warning him in a dream that it would shorten his life, but go far in re-establishing the faith. Atisha's teaching of the tantric Buddhism current in India was severely censored by Tibet's neo-orthodox religious hierarchy, however, who feared that the tantras, with their sexual imagery, would have an adverse effect on Tibetan morals. This stance determined Tara's (and Atisha's) career in Tibet, for her primary texts were tantras, not sutras, and therefore were not, at first, translated or taught.(4)

By Atisha's day, Tara was an established goddess in India. Even very early texts, such as the Manjushrimula-kalpa and the Mahavairochana-sutra, place her near Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the earliest known Indian images of her show her as a celibate consort of Avalokiteshvara, whose active role in compassionate work she eventually assumed.(5) By the ninth century, however, she had already appeared in the Buddhist cave-temples at Ellora as an independent savioress, who, like Avalokiteshvara, rescued those who prayed to her from both physical and psychological dangers. This role is implied by her name, which means both star and saviour, a reading that derives from the Sanskrit root tar, to "cross over," and, in the Buddhist context, means "to cross over the ocean of rebirths to enlightement." Her eight different forms as Green Tara, each one efficacious against a different peril, and her twenty-one forms, described in the Praise in Twenty-one Homages (Ekavamstatistotra), were all well-known to Atisha (see cat. nos. 103-106).

Atisha's visions of Tara were inspired by the tantras, sadhanas (visualization texts), and prayers that described her in her green, or active form, but also by the potent, personal revelations of her contemplative white form granted to the Indian Vagishvarakirti (ninth-tenth century), who first conceived of her specialized function of "cheating death" and bestowing long life.(6) Atisha wrote an evocation of Vagishvarakirti's White Tara and another of Green Tara. White Tara, however, was more acceptable to the neo-orthodox hierarchy of eleventh-century Tibet, because she was the product of a personal vision, rather than a figure whose authority came through the tantras. During Atisha's brief sojourn in Tibet, it was his own abiding devotion to the goddess more than anything else that fueled the growth of her cult in a way that ignored sectarian lines.

The Mongolian Bogdo Gegen, Zanabazar, received his own devotion to Tara through two transmissions of Atisha's teachings, the first (as outlined above) via the Gelugpa adoption of Kadampa precepts, the second inherently, by way of his immediate preincarnation, Taranatha (1575-1634). Taranatha belonged to the Jonangpa, an offshoot of the Sakyapa (whose lamas also wholeheartedly shared Atisha's reverence for Tara) and was one of the greatest of Tibet's religious historians. His Origin of the Tara Tantra, written in 1604, deals with the source of the tantra and its promulgation, and it is he who is credited with the diffusion and promotion of the cult of Green Tara, and with fashioning its mature form.(7)

There are a few scattered records that document Zanabazar's relationship to Tara; certainly images he made of her in her many forms dominate his extant works (see also cat. nos. 103-106). In 1649, when he went as a fifteen-year-old boy to Tibet to receive consecrations from the Panchen and Dalai lamas, he was also recognized as Taranatha's rebirth. Before returning to Mongolia, he traveled to monasteries where he had spent his earlier lives, collecting, among other things, the goddess's texts and images.(8) Legend also has it that Zanabazar had a beautiful consort, the Girl Prince, who was as deft a sculptor as he. She died at the age of eighteen and her ashes were used for printing scriptures. Zanabazar is said to have modeled his Taras on her, the White Tara shows her as a young virgin, the large Green Tara in her last year, as a physically mature, voluptuous woman (several of his twenty-one Taras are echoes of this central figure; see Berger, "After Xanadu," fig. 5.)

Zanabazar's White Tara was originally kept at the monastery at Erdeni-zuu, and in scale, style, and detail she approximates his extraordinary group of the Five Meditation Buddhas (see cat. no. 97). His Tara is a pubescent girl, exquisite in form and with an expression of focused, serious compassion. She appears just as the First Dalai Lama, Ged,ndrup, describes her in his poem, where she is revealed as the "Spiritual Mother" of the Buddhas, as the "Refuge of the World," and as she "whose head is adorned with Amitayus, Buddha of Boundless Life."(9) White Tara sits on a moon-disc placed on top of a single lotus pedestal, erect and alert, and without any of the activating dÈhanchement usually seen in images of her. Nonetheless, her posture and even her flesh appear remarkably natural; Zanabazar's abstractions take the subtler form of perfectly exquisite surface and proportion. Tara lowers her right hand in a gesture of "Supreme Giving," and holds a white lotus in her left. Her hands and feet are inset with eyes; she also has a third eye in her forehead, but even these extraordinary attributes seem natural. Her "sapphire tresses" are half-knotted and half-free, and she wears a five-pointed crown that transforms itself into a kirtimukha (a protective, terrifying halo-face) at the front. Elaborate earrings and fluttering, flattened scarves surround her elongated ears, and her body is adorned with the spare, elegant jewelry of a bodhisattva, typical of Zanabazar's Nepalese-inspired sensibility.

The First Dalai Lama's poem (as well as his invocation to the goddess) specifically appeals to her for long life, but it also prays for protection from danger, and access to enlightenment, hopes that are inextricably intertwined. This vision of Tara as the source of long life is based on Vagishvarakirti's revelations, which saw Tara as a sixteen-year-old girl, in every way the antithesis of death, and his dream of the goddess is perfectly captured by Zanabazar's calm, yet energized image. In the most basic sense, Buddhists in Tibet and Mongolia saw the offerings, praises, and prayers they offered to Tara as an "initiation into life,"(10) and as a way of extending and prolonging the unique opportunity for enlightenment that only human life presented.

All images and text copyright The Asian Art Museum; not to be reproduced without permission.

1. Glenn H. Mullin, Selected Works of the Dalai Lama I: Bridging the Sutras and Tantras, pp. 194-97. back

2. Stephan Beyer, The Cult of Tara, p. 11. back

3. Ibid. back

4. Ibid, pp. 11-13. back

5. Mallar Ghosh, Development of Buddhist Iconography in Eastern India: A Study of Tara,Prajnas of Five Tathagatas and Bhrikuti, pp. 6-31; and Martin Willson, In Praise of Tara: Song to the Saviouress, pp. 39-43. back

6. Stephan Beyer, The Cult of Tara, p. 363. back

7. Jo-nan Taranatha, The Origin of the Tara Tantra, David Templeman, ed. and trans.; and Martin Willson, In Praise of Tara, pp. 33-36, 169-206. back

8. See e.g. Charles Bawden, The Jebtsundamba Khutkhtus of Urga, p. 45. back

9. Glenn H. Mullin, Selected Works of the Dalai Lama I, p. 195. back

10. Stephan Beyer, The Cult of Tara, pp. 363-467. back

<< previous image || Mongolian Exhibition || next image >>